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The public are ready to go further and faster on net zero

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  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • Leadership

The government has now published its much-awaited net zero strategy. It is detailed, specific and clearly a substantive plan for change. The plan also relies very heavily on targets, technology and regulation so it feels very top down. What is largely missing? Behaviour change, whole systems thinking and public engagement and voice. What’s more, as a consequence, there is a risk the UK government and many of their counterparts will be behind the public when it comes to combatting climate emergency. 

To get to where we need to be as a global community, there is little doubt that we will have to transform our economies and societies to a post-carbon future and to a regenerative future. This means not only mitigating or reducing our impact on the environment but putting back, restoring and replenishing our natural world so that future generations can live happily and healthily alongside abundant natural resources. The opposite scenario is mass misery, dislocation of entire communities and geo-political strife and conflict the level of which is at a completely different scale to even the Covid pandemic. Net zero is one milestone. But beyond we must limit energy use, waste, depletion of water and material resources and destruction of biodiversity.

The latest IPCC technical analysis is clear: if we are to limit the increase of average global temperatures to 1.5C from early industrial times there is no time to waste. Environmental science has been clear for some time on all of this. There are now signs that the message is hitting home with the public.

In a survey conducted for the RSA Regenerative Futures programme, we see quite a remarkable and across-the-board acceptance of the need to transform our economy, society and individual behaviours. There is a strong sense of duty to future generations and a realisation that our historic emissions place a special responsibility on the UK, US and EU to be in the vanguard of de-carbonisation. And there is an acceptance that global agreements and technology will not be enough to see the necessary transition in themselves. Only 38 percent believe they will be.

The message for Boris Johnson and other global leaders as they head to COP26 in Glasgow this November is clear: take action now. As the RSA’s Josie Warden says in Regenerative Futures: from sustaining to thriving together,“Making incremental improvements to existing systems isn’t enough to deal with challenges of this magnitude.”

What is remarkable about the data from the survey is that it indicates extremely strong support for action across regions, demographics, and political affiliation. There is very strong support for the notion that we need to provide support to the developed world to adapt. 72 percent of Conservative voters agree – a higher proportion than in the population as a whole. International development aid might not be quite so unpopular as has been assumed. The Prime Minister was clear on his recent visit to the US that he thought that we have a duty to be in the vanguard of de-carbonisation given the accumulated emissions of industrialised countries over many generations. Two-thirds of respondents in the survey agree.

Diet, consumption and car use are seen as potential ‘wedges’ that will diminish support for pursuing an ambitious net zero policy. Yet, 57 percent believe we should eat less meat, 69 percent that we should drive less, and 71 percent that we should buy fewer clothes and recycle them more. And for a society that some suppose is completely short-termist in outlook, it is striking that 77 percent believe we have a duty to future generations to preserve the planet. 81 percent of Conservative voters also agree. These findings should put the wind in the rotor blades of COP26. 

So when the government’s net zero plan, Build Back Greener, says it wants to ‘go with the grain of consumer behaviour’ it may be badly underestimating how far and fast people are willing to go. To assume an energy increase of between 40 and 60 percent by 2037 as the strategy does completely misses thinking about systems that can enable more efficient energy use. The government is offering a grant to support the installation of air-source heat pumps. This leans too heavily on cash incentives alone. What are the systemic supports that can enable people to understand options and consider how best to take advantage of them? For example, why not require a home energy assessment when re-mortgaging complete with attractive finance options and comprehensive information for home-owners (including landlords)? 

It would be naïve, of course, to suppose that support for decisive action is subject to downward pressure as the real complexity of living radically changed lives distributes costs of change to consumers, companies and taxpayers. Yet, it would be foolhardy to ignore the opportunity for well-managed transition, at pace and scale, that is present. There are two warning lights flashing on dashboard: economic security and democratic voice.

When wholesale gas prices are increasing the cost of living, the impact on families of energy costs should not be forgotten. Of course, these costs are from finite rather than renewable energy sources. Yet, there is some concern about the impact on cost of living from green measures. Respondents in the survey are evenly split on the primacy of cost of living or climate measures. When new costs are generated, for example through carbon taxes, it will be important to compensate those who can least afford additional burdens. That is why some form of carbon cash dividend as introduced in Canada is a critical policy measure.

Alongside the cost, voice will be crucial. In general, we found that people do not feel they can influence environmental destruction at a global, national and even local level. This is why citizen deliberation from local to national to global level will be so important in creating a sense of influence on the future. Approaches such as the Climate Assembly UK citizen engagement are essentials rather than 'nice to haves'. Such assemblies need to be held at a local level too to really engage citizens further and, in so doing, spread knowledge and a sense of agency. For example, why not mandate every local authority to prepare a local net zero plan informed by genuine community deliberation (something far more committed than tick-box consultation)?

While the public are not willing to just hand over responsibility to policy-makers and technologists, they are both convinced by the science and the necessity for deep changes. They want to be protected and have a voice but equally there is a sense that we are out of sync with the natural world, with the needs of the poorest nations, and the interests of future generations. The will is there. Mindsets are shifting. The public are ahead of policy-makers and, indeed, most of the business world. COP26 is an enormous opportunity to catch up. Global leaders should take it.

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